Low Light, Fast Hands Experiment

Posted: January 31, 2014 in Educational Stuffz

4yygd Lately I had a fun night playing butchering ping pong. Yet, now I have all these photos with a lot of quick movement and low lighting. This got me thinking — are these pictures useless? What if I want to make the most of them? Do photography tutorials always have to use “good” photos and then make them “exceptional”? What if I wanted to make a so-so, borderline crappy photo “decent”? Or at least not destined for the recycle bin.

So here we go. A tutorial for the every person! The every day Joe or Josephine who isn’t a professional photographer but still wants to make something of those hasty shots snapped in the dim light. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is an experiment, so come along for the ride, and let’s see what can be done.

The Original:

This is a cute picture of my friend, Emma, juggling. If I’m being honest, I’d confess that I know right away that this photo is never going to be sharp. But there are some steps I can take to make sure that she still looks good….recognizable. I kind of like working with imperfect images because the expectation is lowered. You can almost get away with going somewhere unconventional with it. I don’t believe in a single beauty standard.


Ladies and gentlemen, start your ACDSee Pro engines!

Reduce the Area:

The first thing I think I’m going to do is crop the image because I want to reduce the overall area that I have to make look decent. So, in Manage mode, I select the image and click the Edit mode tab (top right). I then go to Crop in the Geometry section. Personally, I only mess with the exact dimensions if I have some final destination for the image, like a Facebook cover photo, for instance. It’s easier to just click the Constrain cropping proportion checkbox and then drag the window around on the image. So the part inside the guides is what you will be keeping after you click Done. (The darker area outside the guides is the part that gets the boot, so choose wisely.)


Overall Noise Reduction:

Next, I figured I should remove noise from the whole image. For those of you that don’t know, noise is the weird speckled pixels that make up areas of photos that should be a solid color. Noise tends to occur in photos with low lighting, or with over-sharpening. To reduce noise, just go to the Detail group of Edit mode, then click Noise. Here you’ve got a bunch of options, depending on what sort of noise you have. In this case, I just stick to Hybrid and reduce the Strength slider ever-so-slightly. It’s a delicate balance because noise removal can also smooth out the photo so much that it looks unnatural and works against you in the sharpness department.

Edit Brush and Lighting:

So, obviously, we need to sharpen this stuff up and add a variety of lighting changes and such. But taking on the whole image is pretty ambitious. I want to keep it simple and make her and her ping pong balls the central focus. In order to perform edits to just her and not the background, I’m going to make use of the Edit Brush. So, I’m going to start with lighting. Open the Lighting group in the Exposure/Lighting section and click the Brush button at the top of the panel. It looks like this: brushes

Then I brush a mask all over her. And her balls. Select the Show brush strokes checkbox so you can actually see where the brush strokes are without changing any of the Lighting settings. Or, to save time, toggle the S key.


This will now be the area affected by the tool that I’m about to apply. I want to darken the background to put the emphasis more on Emma. But you brushed her, you say. Well, my friend, we have a dynamic, time saving friend in the Invert Brush button. invert_brush


So now all the adjustments made will apply to the background, unless I switch it back to Emma. At this point, it’s a good idea to turn off the Show brush strokes checkbox so you can actually see the changes as you’re making them.
So, I added some darkening via the Darkening slider, and increased the intensity with the corresponding Amplitude slider. Now I want to lighten her, but, since I’ve applied darkening, if I invert the brush again, Emma will become the one darkened. So, I press Done. Then I enter back into the Lighting tool, open the brush panel again, and press the Load last applied brush strokes button. load_last_applied So now, I can apply brightening to Emma alone. You can click directly on the image and drag up and down to brighten or darken, but this time I just stuck to the Brightening slider.


Now for color! Open Advanced Color in the Color group and click on the brush button once more. I load the last applied brush strokes and invert them to work on the background. Using the Saturation and Vibrance slider, I desaturated the background a little bit — maybe negative 10 or so.


To further put the emphasis on her, I’m going to blur out the background a little bit. Once again, I load the last applied brush strokes and invert them so that the blur will apply to the background. This time I’ve decided to try going with Gaussian blur and only add a value of 49 to keep it looking natural.


Sharpen It Up:

It is now time to sharpen her. Personally, I find sharpening one of the trickiest functions in photo editing. Often times, when you over-sharpen you introduce or reintroduce noise back into the photo. It’s also a struggle with this image in particular, as there aren’t a lot of edges for the tool to utilize. In this situation, I’ve cranked up the Amount slider and tempered it with the Mask slider, which allows for the targeting of edges. I also take the Detail slider all the way up to max, as it suppresses the halo that happens around the edges, making the transition between blur and …not-so-blur a bit of a slap in the face. I put the Threshold at 15 and the Radius at just 10.

Quiet Down:

Now, let’s see if we can get any results by going back to the Noise Reduction tool. For this, I’m going to brush on a new mask to target just the really noisy parts of her arms, rather than washing out her face all over again.
Once again, I went with Hybrid. I backed off on the Luminance slider to try to remove noise but keep some of the shirt’s texture.


A Brush for the Details:

In a last effort to get some more sharpness, I’ve gone in with the Detail Brush on the Sharpen setting.
The Detail Brush can be found in the Detail group and allows you to selectively sharpen or blur. The difference between using this versus using the Edit brush in the Sharpening tool is that with the Detail Brush, you can go over and over an area and it will just keep sharpening (or blurring, if you are using the blur). It will add sharpness until the cows come home. Using the Edit brush, you can only create the mask by brushing over an area once and then adjusting the sharpening settings on that area.

So, I’ve selectively sharpened bits here and there, and made the scarf pop a lot more. But the truth is that this is where it starts to deviate from a natural look. I honestly can’t decide if I like it or not.

Here, let’s let you decide which is best. The one on the left is where I went to town on the Detail Brush. The one on the right has no Detail Brush, and I tried reducing noise on her before sharpening.


(You know when you see before and after photos on the internet and you’re like, “I can’t tell which is which”. That’s when you know that the person behind it has spent far too long staring at it.)
That concludes our experiment. It’s not perfect. But I do feel like I salvaged a nice picture of my friend. Give it a try yourself some time. Remove your expectations and just have fun!
Vote on your favorite in the comments, or let me know what you would do to improve a photo like this one. (Click any photo to see it full size.)


  1. Herman says:

    Nice tutorial. I learned new tricks in “Edit Brush and Lighting”.

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